Tag: "minnesota"

Posted March 14, 2016 by Scott

The publicly owned fiber optic network of Dakota County, Minnesota, and of cities within its borders may soon come under the oversight of a local joint powers board.

David Asp, County Collaboration Engineer, said the County started putting the network together in May of 1998. It has grown from 20 miles in 2005 to 112 miles in 2015, and then to 270 miles in 2016. The network provides speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) download. This news marks a coming of age for the County’s 10-year-old Internet network which, together with the cities' related infrastructure, now spans 270 miles. The County network serves hundreds of public facilities and operations including county buildings, city halls, libraries, schools and more than 350 traffic control signals.

The County and 11 cities within its jurisdiction are now reviewing whether to approve a limited joint powers agreement that would have them inventory their fiber optic infrastructure to find out "what do we have and what are gaps in the system," said Matt Smith, Dakota County deputy manager. Their second objective is to develop a detailed financing system to operate an integrated Internet network, he said.

Asp said he expects the County and the cities will decide by April whether to take this first step in forming the joint powers alliance.

After these studies, the County and cities are then expected to decide if they want to participate in a broader joint powers agreement that would establish the Dakota Broadband Board. If the answer is "Yes," the joint powers board could begin operations in early 2017, Asp said.

Duties of the Board could include establishing policies, procedures, and pricing on leasing the network’s dark fiber, Asp said. Dark fiber is fiber-optic cable that is laid underground but currently not in use, and thus is dormant, or “dark.”

Dakota County, Dakota County Development Agency, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Farmington, Hastings, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Mendota Heights, Rosemount, South St. Paul and West St. Paul are reviewing the initial JPA.

Promoting Economic Development

Asp recently told us that one major role of a joint powers board would be figuring out how to use the dark fiber (unused strands) from Dakota County’s Internet network to promote economic development. That could include extending the network to...

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Posted February 23, 2016 by christopher

For years, many rural communities suffered from a broadband donut hole problem - the investment in better-than-dial-up was in the population center, leaving a donut of poor access around it. Now policy to reverse that in places like Minnesota is perversely creating the opposite problem, to the detriment of the entire community.

This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast we welcome back Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former legislator and current small business owner in Greater Minnesota.

We discuss how this problem developed and where we see it happening before our very eyes. Though we focus on Minnesota, this issue is broadly applicable to all states. We also talk about how Comcast lobbyists have cynically manipulated the program to prevent economic development or possible competition, despite the fact that Comcast serves practically no one outside of the metro region.

Lisa Gonzalez and I predicted this problem in our paper from 2014, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Listen to Dan Dorman's last appearance, episode 136.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using...

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Posted February 22, 2016 by lgonzalez

Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Communications' is bringing better connectivity to homes and businesses across northern rural Minnesota via fiber. The cooperative is also helping local school districts save precious dollars while obtaining the Internet access kids need for a 21st century education.

The cooperative recently announced it is now serving all schools in the GigaZone, the area served by its fiber network, and every school can upgrade to gigabit Internet services at no extra charge.

From the announcement:

"The GigaZone will provide the school districts Gigabit Internet speeds throughout the school day so educators and students alike can use the Internet faster and more efficiently. This upgrade is being provided at no extra charge so districts can stay within their budget and prepare their students for the future and the new technologies it will bring," said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications IT & Development Manager.

Recent studies reveal that rural schools grapple with high rates for Internet access, often because there is only one provider who takes advantage of their solo position. Paul Bunyan Communications is one of the many telecommunications cooperatives that serve rural regions that are owned by the people they serve. Like municipal networks, cooperatives typically display a concern for the community rather than maximizing profit.

Paul Bunyan is continuing to expand its current GigaZone coverage area. The coop now serves over 14,000 locations in rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, and portions of Bemidji. The goal is to cover the 5,000 square mile service area now served by the cooperative.

Posted February 10, 2016 by htrostle

It’s getting to be a sad, repetitive tale: crappy Internet for rural populations. Minnesota public officials hope to change that. At both state and federal levels, they’re advocating for greater funding for rural high-speed Internet. 

They’ve proposed several ideas to fund rural connectivity. At the state level, Governor Mark Dayton is pushing to use $100 million of the Minnesota government budget surplus for rural broadband projects. In D.C., Congressman Rick Nolan has introduced a bill to provide funding for regional solutions, and Senator Amy Klobuchar is working on a bill for coordinating broadband installation and highway construction. Will any of these ideas work?

Minnesota Budget Surplus

Minnesota’s state government expects a $1.9 billion budget surplus, which presents an opportunity to fund large, one-time investments. The Star Tribune notes that such one-time investments in infrastructure, “especially when infrastructure is defined broadly to include roads, transit, public buildings and broadband capacity,” could prove a welcome idea. Fiber networks have high, up-front construction costs, but they offer next-generation, high-speed connectivity. Depending on what state leaders do, those high construction costs may no longer be a barrier.

With the news of the budget surplus, Governor Dayton renewed his call for $100 million (just 5% of the budget surplus) to improve broadband in rural Minnesota. Last spring, however, state legislators only approved about a tenth of that amount - around $10 million. The year before that, they had only put in $20 million. The money funds competitive grants in which companies and local governments match state dollars to build networks. Promising a “border to border broadband” approach, Dayton continues to push for funding for rural projects, but it is up to state legislators to determine what to do.

Ideas for Regional Solutions from D.C. 

Meanwhile in D.C., Congressmen Rick Nolan (D-MN), Jared Huffman (D-CA), and Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Investment Act. Modeled after the process...

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Posted February 3, 2016 by lgonzalez

Community leaders in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, are taking advantage of growth in apartment and condominium developments to "till the soil" for better residential connectivity. One of the smartest things a community can do to improve connectivity is prepare an environment that encourages high-speed connectivity infrastructure investment. As developers erect new buildings, the city is working with them to develop internal wiring standards and conduit installation standards for high-quality Internet access within and to their buildings.

Developers Understand The Value

The city of approximately 45,000, located immediately west of Minneapolis has not adopted any formal building code language, but has negotiated broadband readiness specifications with several new multi-dwelling unit building developers. Savvy developers realize that high-speed connectivity is now a basic utility that tenants demand.

Loma Linda, California, implemented a similar approach when it passed an ordinance concerning wiring codes for its Connected Communities Program in 2004. New development and remodels that involve more than 50 percent of the structure must include internal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) wiring. Developers, recognizing the increase in value of properties wired for FTTH, have embraced the practice.

A Goal to Better the Community

The effort is St. Louis Park's intention to turn the city into a "technology connected community," and is part of St. Louis Park City Council Goals & Priorities. The city and the developer begin with basic language and the parties make changes to accommodate the unique needs of each development:

Broadband Readiness

Redeveloper shall install at its cost dedicated wired connections from each building’s telecommunications point of presence to each internal wiring closet, thence to each living and working unit. Each living and working unit shall have a minimum of two (2) connections, each capable of supporting at minimum a one-gigabit connection.

To provide for future high-speed broadband service, the Redeveloper shall install at its cost one empty 2-inch conduit from within a new or existing handhole in proximity to its existing telecommunications services, typically in public Right-of-Way, (Point A) to a point of presence...

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Posted February 1, 2016 by lgonzalez

For seniors, low-income residents, and the disabled in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a Comcast discount within the city's franchise agreement is not all it was cracked up to be. The Pioneer Press recently reported that, as eligible subscribers seek the ten percent discount guaranteed by the agreement, they are finding the devil is in the details - or lack of them.

This is a warning to those who attempt to negotiate with Comcast for better service. Comcast may make deals that it knows are unenforceable. 

"No Discount For You!"

For years, Comcast held the only franchise agreement with the city of St. Paul. In 2015, the city entered into a new agreement with the cable provider and, as in the past, the provider agreed to offer discounts for low-income and senior subscribers. Such concessions are common because a franchise agreement gives a provider easy access to a pool of subscribers.

It seems like a fair deal, but where there is a way to squirm out of a commitment, Comcast will wriggle its way out. 

Comcast is refusing to provide the discount when subscribers bundle services, which are typically offered at reduced prices. Because the contract is silent on the issue of combining discounts, the city of approximately 298,000 has decided it will not challenge Comcast's interpretation:

The company notes that the ten percent senior discount applies only to the cable portion of a customer's bill. Comcast has maintained that it is under no legal obligation to combine discounts or promotions, and that bundled services provide a steeper discount anyway.

Subscribers who want to take advantage of the discounts will have to prove their senior status and/or their low-income status. In order to do so, Comcast representatives have been requesting a copy of a driver's license or state issued i.d. 

CenturyLink Picks Up the Baton

In November, the city approved an additional franchise agreement with competitor CenturyLink. That agreement also provides that seniors, low-income households, and disabled residents are eligible to receive a ten percent discount. CenturyLink can, in the alternative, offer a discount of $5 off a subscriber's cable bill if a subscriber applies for the low-income discount. In order to receive this discount, the...

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Posted January 19, 2016 by htrostle

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility...

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Posted December 22, 2015 by htrostle

Iowa, known across the country for its agriculture, is known in other circles for its exciting community broadband projects. Earlier this year President Obama visited Cedar Falls to praise its municipal network and to support other efforts to improve rural high-speed Internet access. One of those efforts is Wiatel. This small telecommunications coop is beginning a $25 million project to upgrade its network from copper to fiber throughout its entire service area.

Fiber Connectivity

The cooper network that Wiatel uses now is sufficient for basic phone service, but upgrading to fiber will future-proof the network and provide better Internet speeds. The coop is based out of Lawton, a small town of about 1,000 people, but the coop serves an area of 700 miles. Wiatel hopes to start burying the fiber cables in the summer of 2016. Once the project gets started, officials from the cooperative estimate they will connect all residential and business customers to fiber within 24-30 months.

Wiatel is part of a long-growing movement as rural coops build fiber networks or upgrade to fiber to improve services for members. Just check out the Triangle Communications coop in Montana, the Paul Bunyan Communications coop in Minnesota, or Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama. They’re providing next-generation connectivity at reasonable prices to rural communities often ignored by the large incumbent telephone and cable companies.

Coops: An Alternative

Without an immediate return on investment, large corporate providers have little incentive to build in sparsely populated areas. Traditional corporate providers must answer to shareholders seeking short term profits. Cooperatives are owned by the people they serve, giving their shareholders a practical, real, tangible interest in the success of the endeavor and the community it serves....

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Posted December 19, 2015 by rebecca

The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015. 

Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings

Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.

Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.

The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.

Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.

Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.

Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.

Some municipal networks have been...

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Posted October 6, 2015 by htrostle

This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].

Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:

"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ...  Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."

The USDA has awarded more than  $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:

Alaska

Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.

Minnesota

Garden Valley Telephone, one of the largest coops in Minnesota, will continue to expand its FTTH service area with a $12.63 million loan. On average, the coop serves two households per square mile.

Consolidated Telephone, another coop, will perform upgrades and add a new fiber ring to allow for greater bandwidth with a $12.27 million...

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